Cameron doesn’t understand the Scotland debate

Alex Salmond isn't interested in a "binding" referendum - he’s interested in winning a democratic ma

In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, David Cameron revealed that he was planning to bring forward proposals which he hoped would settle the "uncertainty" surrounding Scotland's constitutional future in a "fair, decisive and legal" way. This raised suspicions that the Prime Minister was about to call a pre-emptive, Westminster-led referendum on the break-up of Britain.

In the event, nothing so dramatic transpired. Instead, Cameron has made an offer to Alex Salmond: hold an independence poll within eighteen months on the basis of a straight-forward Yes/No question, and Westminster will grant formal legal status to whatever result it produces. Refuse, and any future referendum run by the Scottish Parliament will be nothing more than advisory -- a kind of glorified opinion poll.

There are a couple of reasons why this must have appeared to the Tory leader as a clever political manoeuvre. First of all, if Salmond were to accept, he would forfeit the power to set the timing and wording of the ballot, both of which will be crucial in determining the outcome of the vote. Secondly, it hands a degree of initiative back to the Unionist parties, which have so far struggled to contain the SNP's juggernaut momentum.

On closer inspection, however, Cameron's intervention represents a rather clumsy and unthinking lurch into a debate he obviously doesn't fully understand. 

The SNP is under no illusions about where constitutional authority in the UK lies. The nationalists know full well that for any referendum on Scottish secession to be binding, it would have to be ratified by the Westminster Parliament which remains - despite devolution - ultimately sovereign under the terms of the British constitution. It follows, then, that Alex Salmond has never intended to hold anything other than a non-binding or advisory referendum. What matters to him is that he secures a clear democratic mandate from the Scottish people to pursue the further transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh or, if he's really lucky, the creation of an independent Scottish state. The First Minister reckons he is more likely to get one or other of these things if he delays a poll until his preferred date of 2014 or 2015, after the full effects of the coalition's cuts have begun to bite and Scottish resentment toward the Tories un-mandated austerity drive has hit fever pitch.

But if the SNP rejects Cameron's offer -- and on the basis of this press release, it already has -- will it not be exposed to accusations of obstructionism? Is Salmond not taking a huge political risk by denying Scots the opportunity to vote sooner rather than later on an issue of such critical importance? One might think so. Yet, the opposition parties at Holyrood have been putting forward arguments like this literally every week since the SNP won a parliamentary majority last May and the only discernable effect has been to push nationalist poll ratings up, not down. At the last count, the SNP registered 51 per cent support, while Alex Salmond himself remains phenomenally popular.

So, before Cameron congratulates himself for having achieved what he thinks is an important political victory, he should ask himself a couple of questions. How often have Westminster politicians gotten into a tussle with Alex Salmond recently and won? Moreover, how seriously have they underestimated the resilience of Scottish nationalism and its appeal to Scottish voters? The Prime Minister may soon be forced to realise he is in a fight he probably can't win, with an opponent he can't quite comprehend.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.